Why You Should Never Use Restrictive Methods With Difficult Students

The tendency is to corral difficult students, to limit what they can do, where they can go, and who they can be with.

You keep them close. You provide a staccato of reminders and direction, of do this and don’t do that. You keep them bubble-wrapped, tethered, and under your thumb, lest they completely blow it.

It’s exhausting and time-consuming. But sadly, it’s the most commonly practiced and recommended method for dealing with difficult students. The idea being that if you can keep them away from certain classmates and risky situations, you can avoid trouble.

The problem, however, is that it doesn’t work.

Sure, you may be able to hover and micromanage their lives enough to get through a week, maybe two. But avoidance isn’t a real strategy, and soon enough they’ll break free. They’ll rail and rebel against your straitjacketed restrictions.

Furthermore, an inhibitive approach labels students and makes them feel different and creepy and not good enough. It ingrains their tendency to misbehave ever deeper into their identity.

It whispers in their ear again and again that they are their misbehavior. It becomes as much a part of who they are as their hair color or shoe size. They wear it around their neck for the world to see like a bright woolen scarf.

You’re not allowed to be in any group with Josh or Karla.”

I want you next to me when we go to the library.”

You must always sit closest to my desk.”

You’re never again to go near the monkey bars at recess.”

You may not be in line next to Jason, Eric, or Joanna.”

Not to be confused with the effective use of consequences—which are predetermined, limited in duration, and universally applied to all students—the above statements are methods used by teachers to avoid misbehavior from recurring.

But this form of classroom management is tragic to your most challenging students. It’s dreary and dreadful and devoid of hope. It’s more about the teacher than it is about the student and what is best for them.

The truth is that difficult students need to feel like regular students before they can start behaving like regular students. Thus, they need the same parameters, the same classroom management plan, and the same freedom within boundaries afforded to every other student in your class.

For every day is a new day. Every moment is a fresh start. Every footstep is a chance to get it right, to put the past in the past.

Like all students, if they cross your boundary lines of behavior, you follow your classroom management plan. You hold them accountable using predetermined and previously taught consequences only.

You allow them to reflect on their mistakes, learn from their missteps, and give it another go with their dignity intact. And once they’ve fulfilled their responsibilities, they’re truly free.

They’re free to receive your forgiveness, your smiles, your kindness, and your unwavering belief in their capacity to grow and change and prove wrong those who have written them off. They’re free to choose to behave rather than have it foisted arbitrarily upon them.

And this makes all the difference.

It fills them with the first stirrings of genuine confidence. It awakens their self-worth. It produces a desire to experience more and more of the cool relief that belonging and acceptance rains down upon them.

Now, this strategy only works if you’re consistent. It only works if you nurture and protect the relationship between you. It only works in conjunction with your focused, not-miss-a-thing powers of observation—for with freedom must come verification.

It is this core Smart Classroom Management principle of freedom within boundaries for all that will finally get through to your most challenging students, penetrating and softening their heart in a way they’ll never see coming.

It is, in fact, the only surefire way to change behavior, to send them on their way after their time with you resurrected, transformed, and ready to take on the world.

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8 Responses to Why You Should Never Use Restrictive Methods With Difficult Students

  1. Maham March 9, 2014 at 12:25 am #

    Hi Michael,

    I’m doing my first ever teaching job, and its 3rd year (undergrad) university students. Although i’ve found most of your tips useful, I’m worried some might be inappropriate or too ‘childish’ for my class — most are over 20 years old, but they’re not a serious bunch. I know its late as i’m already in my 2nd month but i still feel a classroom management plan might help me.

    But what if they only end up laughing? For example, the yellow card tip for issuing warnings, or letter home — Would you suggest I implement them anyway? If not, can you please suggest ‘grown-up’ alternatives?

    Thanks so much
    Will eagerly wait for your response!

    • Michael Linsin March 9, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

      Hi Maham,

      I don’t recommend similar consequences for university students. However, they’re paying for the privilege of being in your classroom, and you have every right and reason to ask for respectful behavior (that doesn’t interfere with your teaching or their learning). Your school may already have guidelines in place, but any student who repeatedly disrupts your classroom should be given warning that if it continues, they can be dropped from the class. Be sure and speak to your department head about legalities, school guidelines, and other recourse you may be able to take, including possible effect on the grades. Also, in the future, be sure and cover your behavior expectations as well as guidelines/consequences the first day of class.


  2. E5aa April 10, 2014 at 10:29 pm #

    thanks for your articles
    but I need to ask you about a different difficulty.
    I have a 14-years student who masturbates in my class, he rubs his … under the desk ( so that I cant see what he does)
    All what I did is ignoring him and pretending that I didn’t notice a thing, but it’s very embarrassing, and I think other students have noticed that.
    I can’t contact a supervisor about it since we have none, I don’t want to contact the principal or parents, and it’s not easy to speak directly to the student.
    *** What should I do?

    • Michael Linsin April 11, 2014 at 7:08 am #

      Hi E5aa,

      Consult with your principal then speak with the student. If it continues, then contact parents.


  3. Maha Khan September 4, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    Hi Michael,

    I am a teacher of grade 5 and 6 students.. Its been a year that em in teachng profession. Actualy my problem is teachng boys bcoz they are too naughty to listen to the teacher.. I want some valuable tips for handling active and naughty boys… In the class they keep fighting with each other and then start complaining of one another…what to do ! Em very stressed about it…

    • Michael Linsin September 4, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

      Hi Maha,

      It sounds like you need a simple, effective, and comprehensive approach to classroom management, which is what we offer. I recommend spending some time in our archive. I’m certain you’ll find the tools and strategies you’re looking for.


  4. Gary May 21, 2016 at 8:18 am #

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for an informative and very practical site.

    I teach ESL to high school and middle school students, and arrange my classes into groups (they all face the front of the classroom, though).

    On the first day of class I choose 6-8 students and let them choose thier group members. As the semester progresses, I make changes by switching students to other groups to help low level English students get help from those with better skills. I also separate students who always mess around or talk too much to each other (nine times out of ten they are close friends or even romantically involved with each other). I have found this method successful in helping unfocused students to focus better.

    What do you think about this method? Do you think I am using restrictive methods on these students that may be detrimental to them? Well behaved students often have to leave their groups in which they were comfortable in to make space for these changes and they sometimes tell me that they understandably don’t want to move. I usually tell them that I want them to move, because a poor behaved student who moves to another group and behaves better in the new group benefits the whole class in the long run. I tell the well behaved student that I expect them to make a sacrifice for the good of the whole class.

    Is this method unreasonable, unfair and restrictive, even though it seems for the most part effective in helping to improve student behaviour and benefit the class as a whole?